July 2003

Melissa Roy

nonfiction

The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright

The book jacket for The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch touts Anne Enright as delivering “an astonishing, rich tour de force inspired by the life of a truly extraordinary woman: Eliza Lynch, the nineteenth-century Irishwoman who became Paraguay's Eva Perón.” The book originally appealed to me because of the historical nature of it (although I was aware that it would be historical fiction) and because of the curious nature of a hot-blooded Irishwoman coming to power in Paraguay. I imagined that the Eliza of this book, particularly because of the title, would be a strong woman along the lines of Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, and (of course) the aforementioned Eva Perón. I’m always a sucker for a new heroine and game for learning about new historical figures.

I was disappointed to find that the book was not astonishing and its heroine not particularly extraordinary. Eliza, as she is portrayed in the book, was much like all powerful women throughout history, a living dichotomy who did questionable things in pursuit of her power and continued to do questionable things after she had attained it. Eliza, though, unlike the Elizabeths and Evas of history, didn’t garner any respect in Enright’s portrayal of her. She was a woman who began her adolescence bartering sexual favors for beautiful cloth from which to make her fine dresses and began her womanhood trading those same sexual favors for power. She describes her sexual encounters in detached detail and is often disgusted by her partners (even Francisco Solano Lopez, who brings her to power in Paraguay at his side, about whom during one sexual encounter she things “She might bite him. She might tear at his bottom lip, if it were not for his terrible breath. When he walked into her drawing room, you could smell it from the doorway.”).

While sexual promiscuity, and even the use of sexuality for favors and power, might be forgivable, it doesn’t seem to have been the best way to begin this book to garner any sympathy for the Eliza. I never quite recovered from the first 11 pages of the book, where Enright introduces us to her main character’s past and her current thoughts, numbered according to the thrusts of Lopez’s member into Eliza during their first sexual encounter. This opening made it exactly the “bodice-ripper” that the jacket claimed it was not. It is not fitting as the opening for a powerful woman. Essentially, Eliza never seemed to have anything going for her but sex, which makes her neither extraordinary nor a worthy heroine.

The fact is that historians don’t know much about Eliza Lynch at all, so no one can prove or disprove Enright’s portrayal – she’s filling in substantial gaps using artistic license. While Eliza herself, and certainly her rise to power, are interesting to me now and I can thank Enright for introducing me to a historical figure about whom I knew nothing, I still feel that I don’t know anything about Ms. Lynch and would prefer to read more about her in a different type of novel. If you’re looking for historical fiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book; if you’re looking for a sexy, imaginative novel without much basis where you don’t want to have sympathy for a character who seems pathetic rather than powerful, this certainly fits the bill.

The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright
Grove/Atlantic
ISBN 0871138689
230 pages